Ian Poppewell standing in the shade under a tree in leaf, his hands resting on a white staff with graves behind him

Interviewer: Sam
Interviewee: Ian Popperwell


Sam (00:00:00):
There you go. So my name is Sam and I’m interviewing Ian, and the date today is the 17th of September.

Becoming an activist

Sam (00:00:10):
So the first question I want to ask is what first made you want to get involved in a Disabled person’s movement?

Ian (00:00:17):
I think because I’d grown up as a blind person and had gone to special schools from the age of four and a half, been through the special education system. And then it wasn’t until I was… I think it was after I was at university. When I got my first job, it was the first job as a social worker, I started to bump into other Disabled people who were becoming interested in Disability issues and there was a group just forming and I started to get involved in that and there was in the city and the County council where I work [inaudible 00:01:05] County council at the time.

Ian (00:01:07):
I guess we were just starting to become active and going through similar parts of our journey. So it was really seeing the emerging social model of Disability as a complete reframing of our own experiences. My parents had brought me up to be a confident person who is independent, but my school had taught me nothing about being confident about being blind in the world. They taught me to learn to pretend not to be blind, which is ridiculous. If it were possible…

Sam (00:01:49):
What date was it that you first got involved? At what time?

Ian (00:01:54):
1988. I moved down to Bristol a year or so before and done my post graduate social work training at the time and then started my first job as a social worker. So yes, 1988. Early/mid ’88.

Sam (00:02:24):
So what were things like overall for Disabled people at this time?

Ian (00:02:28):
Well, I suppose, they’re not great for Disabled people now, but in terms of… Issues of accessibility weren’t considered. They were never. In terms of wheelchair access, physical access, informational access, which was more my issue. All Deaf people’s access, all those kinds of things they weren’t even considerations.

Arrogant professionals

Ian (00:02:56):
All the decisions were made by generally very self… Fairly arrogant professionals who’s training had taught them that they were experts over disabled people’s needs. And the notion of Disabled people wasn’t thought in the way we think about today. It was very much… The word ‘handicapped’ was used a lot. Professionals in terms of social care, education, health were all around very specific clusters and impairments. So you’d have people that would work with the blind and maybe partially sighted as they called it. [inaudible 00:03:50] They wouldn’t touch people that had muscular dystrophy and it was crazy. There were charities. Hundreds of charities followed every impairment group and claimed to have the expertise over those groups and none of them had any Disabled people on their management committees. Occasionally they’d have the odd token person somewhere that they kind of have as an office junior or something and patronize the hell out of.

Ian (00:04:26):
And in Bristol, we had some key charities. There was Scope, used to be the Spastic Society, the Arthritis Care, it was a hateful organization, the MS Society, again, another hateful organization, the Bristol Royal Society for the Blind, which provided services from nursery through to a school, through to adult education, they had a workshop that people would go to throughout their working life. Hostel. They’d live at a hostel in Redland and there was even an old people’s home just around the corner from where I live now. People would kind of live from the age of four to their death in the clutches of this disgraceful organization. And so that was very much this whole charity thing. Charities claiming the expertise and having the expertise to our issues as they thought it. So we started to challenge them. They were furious.

Sam (00:05:37):
What was the first organization relating to the Disabled persons [inaudible 00:05:41] that you worked with or became involved with?

Avon Coalition for Disabled People

Ian (00:05:45):
I never worked in this pay job. I was paid to work in Disability equality. My involvement in Disabled people’s organizations was always as a Disabled activist, as a volunteer, voluntary capacity. Well, there was a small group of people that were trying to set up a centre for integrated living as a centre for an inclusive [inaudible 00:06:09] in the late eighties. And then a few of us were slightly more radical than that, got involved in it and we kind of said, “But actually, what we need is a coalition of Disabled people.” So we shifted that and created what became the Avon Coalition for Disabled People, which then kind of launched in{date:9.

Sam (00:06:27):
What did you, as part of the Avon Coalition, what did you do? So what sort of activities?

Ian (00:06:43):
Well, we did a number of things really, because when we first set it up, we didn’t have any paid workers or anything. So we kind of did [inaudible 00:06:51] in a direct action. Our launch was outside the Arnolfini. Do you know the Arnolfini?

Sam (00:06:57):

Taking action

Ian (00:06:59):
In Bristol. The art centre, which is one of… It had everything on the ground floor, and they had an accessible cafe, which is on the wheelchair access on the ground floor, and then they kind of did this big fundraising thing at the art centre [inaudible 00:07:13] council funding and spent something like £400,000, which was a lot of money at that time to raise the cafe up off the ground and made it completely inaccessible. So we had a big downer outside and got the local TV and radio interested in this kind of thing. It was the first time that Disabled people were being publicly angry.

Ian (00:07:42):
We went and got involved in the BBC, there’s dreadfully still [inaudible 00:07:49] children in need programs. We stopped the whole audience going into children in need for a couple of hours and blocked the road out on Whiteladies Road and things. So we used to do kind of bits of direct action, but also we got involved in local developments of policy developments as well in terms of educational policy, social care, predominantly some health issues, transport accessibility, all that kind of stuff, and started to push our way into those, and I suppose made allies of certain staff in the councils.

Ian (00:08:36):
There were generally non-disabled people who were on our side really, and saw the point in it. We became very involved in loads of stuff. We had a kind of structural view rather than Disabled people just need looking after. There were things to do in effort. There was a woman who was part of the group who was one of the first leaders in independent living and having really good quality 24- hour day care packages, which are just normal now, but people would normally have gone into residential care even that short time ago in the late eighties. Go on. Carry on asking your question.

Sam (00:09:29):
So who did you work for? What did you get in? Who did you get involved with after this?

Working for Avon County Council

Ian (00:09:40):
I got a job working because I was a social worker briefly, which I said I’d come down to this, but I realized really quickly didn’t like the way social work operated. It’s very individualistic trying to solve individuals out to fit in. I really wish I had done [inaudible 00:10:01] development training or something like that, or social policy or something more structural. I got a job in Avon County Council, which was as an employment officer for Disabled people, which was a kind of policy development job, improving the employment position of Disabled people in the County Council at all levels and looking at fair recruitment. And it was the early days of equal opportunity.

Ian (00:10:33):
So I worked a lot with equal opportunities unit with race equality offices that were just starting to be employed as well. And we had the Disability equality officer who’d actually put the job together that I applied for and thought so strongly to emerge that we were taking Disabled people’s position in the world and employment seriously. So I managed to just get that job and then did Disability equality jobs through the nineties then, [Inaudible 00:11:04] Disability for social care in Bristol and then running a project, which was a kind of transition planning for young, Disabled people in their transition from school to the next steps or from childhood to adulthood.


Sam (00:11:31):
What is your greatest memory being a member of the Avon Coalition?

Ian (00:11:46):
The greatest memory…

Sam (00:11:48):
What stands out to you the most?

Ian (00:11:57):
I think it was the closeness and friendship with a small group of people, probably about five of us that I was very close to. There was a really, a real kind of comradeship and I felt like we were changing things. That was very important to me.

Sam (00:12:26):
So were there any low points or challenging times during your time with them?

Ian (00:12:32):
Yeah. There were loads of arguments because not all Disabled people take the same view and the social model had been kind of written as a sort of theory by this organization, New Pious Union of Physical Impaired Against Segregation in 1981, I think.

Ian (00:12:52):
So we were still quite in the early days developing the social model and we ended up having… There was lots of conflict, internal conflict as you always get between people who are more radical than others or people who seem to get the issues more than others. Yes, it’s not very pleasant to think about, but lots of kinds of people positioning themselves in relationship to others, which I was part of. I’m not disassociating myself from that.

Sam (00:13:28):
Do you still keep in touch with any of the members?

Ian (00:13:32):
A couple of them. Yeah. One of the people I was close to died a few years ago, so only two people. I don’t think they’re involved in any Disability movement stuff now.

Working for equality

Sam (00:13:53):
Are you still involved with the Disabled persons’ movement? Are you still actively involved?

Ian (00:13:59):
No. I’m not. I’ve always been involved in equality issues in my work. I work for the clinical commissioning group as a mental health commissioner now. That time with the Coalition was also a time of the emergence of equal opportunities issues, and equality issues and trying to fight diversity and the way that diversity as a theory, it was coming from the right at the time as a way of countering the issues of discrimination, institutionalized discrimination that we were talking about. I’ve always worked around inequality, seen it as really, really important. I’ve managed to do jobs that have done for tangible things to great change since my time in the Coalition and working on Disability equality work. Massively important to me, helped me develop my thinking.

Changing attitudes?

Sam (00:15:11):
So overall do you think political and public attitudes towards Disabled people have been improved overall since you first became involved?

Ian (00:15:23):
I think throughout my life, I’m 58, I think people’s attitudes have changed very little. I think people have learned to disguise them very well. I think equipment’s changed. I’ve got loads more access to equipment now as a blind person, all the technology I have than I had before 1990, something like that, and it’s got better and better, but there’s still ways that that can exclude me. Physical access has been improved loads. Not enough for many wheelchair users, understandably, but things have improved, but I don’t think attitudes have. I think people treat me… The people who can’t speak to me on their level are in about the same proportion as they were when I was a child, I think. The people that talk to me in different kind of voices if I go into shops or even in… I was involved in the mental health national social inclusion program and it was running in the early 2000s because of services that I permissioned in Bristol and employment services that I’d set up.

Ian (00:16:51):
I remember some of the people that said, “Are you a [inaudible 00:16:55]?” Even then they’d just… This voice gives so much away about them. So I think attitudes have really hardly changed, but practical things and thankfully some structures and the law has changed.

Sam (00:17:14):
So what do you think still needs to be done to improve attitudes?

Ian (00:17:26):
I’m not sure I believe that attitudes can change anymore. I really don’t. I think it’s really personality driven. I don’t think it’s about class, I think it’s about personality, and I think that there are people who meet me and can’t talk to me and other people can. I’m a relatively confident blind person who’s obviously blind, but I’m not sure… I don’t think that… I think we’ve spent so much time on trying to improve attitudes and trying to make awareness training, belittling ourselves in the process.

Ian (00:18:25):
And I’ve never seen anything. I’ve seen loads of people who are basically good, but don’t understand maybe about Disability and maybe say a few wrong words or don’t feel quite comfortable with those people and as soon as they have some training, they’ll just get it quickly. But I think the people that have dreadful attitudes, I don’t think there’s much that’ll change them. My dad died earlier in the year and he had a stroke, a really bad stroke. He was in hospital for a small stroke in Somerset, and most of the staff there just talked to him on the level, a normal voice and there were a few of them that didn’t and it really stuck out. It was really interesting seeing how other people rather than it being herded towards me all my life and to the friends and colleagues and the Disabled people’s movement things, but just to hear that still people can talk… Some people say “Hello, Malcolm, how are you?” And others say, “Hello, Malcolm. How are you?” And things like that. That didn’t change.

Ian (00:19:37):
I think there’s fuck all we can do about it. Those people should just be… I don’t know. We shouldn’t have them work in our organizations or go anywhere near them. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it.

Advice for new activists

Sam (00:19:55):
So what would be your advice for those wanting to become a part of the Disabled person’s movement?

Ian (00:20:06):
Oh, that’s interesting. I guess don’t be too fixed about it. I hear people in the organization that we’ve got in Bristol at the moment using the same words that they used 20, 30 years ago. I just want to see things move on a bit. I think issues around other areas of discrimination or they’re talking about intersectionality. These are really interesting. And also kind of the way that impairment operates.

Ian (00:20:44):
I write a blog on blindness now, which I thought I’d never do. I find my blindness fascinating. In the context of institutional discrimination, I’m still defined as a Disabled person. I hope the Disabled people’s movement put some fights as well. Things aren’t okay. We fought for anti-discrimination legislation. We went along to all the demonstrations and got it in the end partly through those things, but partly through good lobbying and all that stuff. We have the equality now. We had the Disability discrimination act in ’95, but there’s loads of things that are battles still to be won for all things to change to kind of break change over. I think things are slipping back. People are doing things now that they used to do in… Doing kinds of training that we kind of moved away from years ago for really good thought out reasons. I really think we need a good, strong, thoughtful, nuanced, Disabled people’s movement. Be able to argue rather than just use rhetoric to be able to argue. I support commissioners to do different things.

Ian (00:22:20):
I’d like to see some more radicalism grounded there. I’d like to be challenged. I’m nowhere near as radical as I used to be, and I kind of like to be challenged a bit more, but sometimes I feel like I’m still more radical than a lot of other people. I wish I see so many battles that need to be argued for Disabled people, and the employment issue… It’s still all right for Disabled people to believe that they can’t work and shouldn’t work. It’s incredible.


Sam (00:23:04):
So if you could go back in time, what things relating to your work would you have done differently or changed?

Ian (00:23:14):
My work on Disability?

Sam (00:23:16):

Ian (00:23:20):
I think probably I regret being… I think at times I was too aggressive. I think there’s a thing when Disabled people have been treated in a particular way that involved segregation. In my case, throughout my childhood and stuff, and then moving and then suddenly having this view that things can be different and realizing what needs to change.

Ian (00:23:58):
I think early on, I wasn’t very helpful in being very critical and aggressive sometimes in my work situation, sometimes in the Coalition. We didn’t always make many friends. The campaigns that we had. I think there’s probably… I used to think it was time though. I don’t want to kind of look back and think it was mistakes, but I think looking back now, I think there are ways of being a bit more skillful than I was… Worried about convincing people of arguments or getting things done.

Sam (00:24:51):
So we’re coming towards the end now, but is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that hasn’t yet been covered? Is there anything you’d like to add or something?

The social model

Ian (00:25:07):
I think the thing I haven’t said much, I suppose in the early days of the Disabled people’s movement in this country, particularly, which is different from how it was in other countries, our notion of the social model was really important wherein it wasn’t so important in the USA for instance and other parts of Europe at the time, and I thought it was a wonderful thing having a theoretical basis that took away my sense of inadequacy as a blind person and meant that we could put the responsibility on to society. But I think also we were denied the existence often, and certainly the meaning and impact of impairment. I think that was a mistake.

Ian (00:26:08):
I think there was a lot of that. I think impairments can be very difficult and in themselves are very disabling sometimes. And we could have been supportive of each other, not just around the discrimination we faced, but how our impairments impacted on us, and it could have been quite rich conversation in understanding those things better rather than denying or ignoring them, because they were the things that the charities were interested in, the social workers and the medics were all interested in our conditions. That’s all they wanted to know about. So we kind of turned it on its head, but we lost something in being able to kind of reframe impairment in terms of Disability equality. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Wrapping up

Sam (00:27:06):
Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Yeah. So I think that’s all the questions answered actually. So thank you very much for your time today, Ian.

Ian (00:27:16):

Sam (00:27:16):
It’s been really interesting chatting actually.

Ian (00:27:20):
Thanks. What do you do?

Sam (00:27:25):
I’m a third year student at university.

Ian (00:27:29):
All right.

Sam (00:27:30):
I’m doing geography.

Ian (00:27:33):
In Bristol?

Sam (00:27:33):
Yeah. At UWE.

Ian (00:27:34):
Are you Disabled?

Sam (00:27:35):
Yeah. I’m a wheelchair user.

Ian (00:27:39):
Oh yeah. Right. Yeah.

Sam (00:27:41):
So I’m actually doing my dissertation this year and I’m doing it on public transport and wheelchair access.

Ian (00:27:47):
Oh, interesting. Yeah.

Sam (00:27:48):
In Bristol and the surrounding area. I’m really enjoying what I’m finding out so far.

Ian (00:27:54):
Yeah. This project is running through the Bristol Disability Equality Forum?

Sam (00:28:02):
Oh yeah. This one here is about Forging our Future. We’re just trying to get lots of people’s stories together about their activism in the days and stuff like that. Thank you for your time today, Ian.

Ian (00:28:16):
You’re welcome. It was good to get to talk to you. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk.

Sam (00:28:21):
Great. Thanks again.

Ian (00:28:22):
Take care.

Sam (00:28:23):
And you. Thank you. Bye.

Ian (00:28:23):

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